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Blockchain Can Empower Stateless Refugees

By Amy Schmitz and Jeff Aresty | December 2, 2018, 8:02 PM EST

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Amy Schmitz
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Jeff Aresty
In Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," Juliet emphasizes that what matters most is what something is, and not what it is called, when she says: “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”[1]

But imagine having no papers establishing your identity, and no place to claim as your home. That is the plight of marginalized and migrating populations everywhere. What if you are a Syrian nurse who, for 25 years, has provided for her family, and then one day has to flee with her children to a refugee camp? What does her future and that of her family look like? Does international law help her? What about the laws of nation-states?

Based on current estimates, she will be stuck in a camp for a decade, and 25 years of training will become irrelevant. She will never again be able to practice as a nurse. And all of this because she left her legal identity and ability to work behind in Syria when she fled.

In the 21st century, individuals should not have to rely on legal identity linked to citizenship. All people should have a digital identity that they own and control, and can take anywhere, that opens the door to their identity and all the attributes and credentials of their existence — in other words, it empowers them to move forward.

Such a digital identity need not be controlled nor issued by any state, meaning that it need not be linked to citizenship — though it can be recognized by states, if they so choose. In this way, every person can have an identity that provides access to justice. As the needs of globalized and migrating populations grow, the process by which the rule of law can be implemented with new technologies can offer new ways for these populations to obtain freedom, education and justice.

Professor Gillian Hadfield has said:

Technology and globalization continue to uproot and reshape daily life and economics. Digital platforms connect billions around the planet in an ever more complex networks of data and exchange. How will we come up with the new rules we need to make sure we continue to innovate and grow but also become a fairer, safer, and more inclusive global community?[2]

Where do we start? Let’s take the tough case: Stateless refugees who have no legal identity and thus, no recourse to the rule of law.

Creating Identity

By the use of blockchain technology, it is possible to return control over personal information to displaced persons, which can be the first step in developing digital identities for them. An underlying principle for the safe, secure and humanitarian use of technology as it relates to identity now becomes possible: Anyone with this new form of identity can control access to his or her own personal information.

This use of blockchain technology potentially turns on its head the way stateless refugees without personal identification are currently treated. Without some form of paper identity they are not recognized as persons, and are deprived of human rights. The old system of legal identity through a nation-state has excluded refugees from being treated as persons. So how can the use of blockchain technology change the paradigm?

There are 1.1 billion persons around the world who could be helped by the availability of some form of digital identity. Would it be possible for this new form of digital identity to open doors to education and digital assets, and otherwise provide a foundation for living in the modern world? And can a private international law framework be used in conjunction with blockchain technology to create such a digital identity system to empower stateless refugees?

InternetBar.org Institute, or IBO, a global NGO, developed the idea for a project to pursue these goals, and presented it at the World Justice Forum V in July 2017, in a presentation titled "The Invisibles: Digital Identity for Stateless Refugees." Then, earlier this year, IBO recorded music with top musicians living in refugee camps in eight countries, in order to make these refugees owners of digital assets.

IBO’s PeaceTones label worked with musicians from Syria, Iraq, Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Haiti, Myanmar, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan, recording in refugee camps, and with NGOs supporting refugees, in the United Kingdom, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Senegal. The end result will be an album, now being mixed and mastered, to be titled “World United in Song.” Using blockchain technology, musicians involved in this effort will receive digital identities through which they will obtain compensation.

Using blockchain technology, digital credentials indicating ownership of digital assets will be placed into the digital wallets of refugees, who will have rights to earnings from the sale of their music under private international law. This can serve as the first step toward the creation of digital identity.

IBO is also looking for ways to give refugees digital credentials that will allow them to obtain education and many sources of income. To do this, IBO is identifying potential technology partners throughout the world. One such partner is the Sovrin Foundation. The Sovrin Foundation, launched in September 2016, has released Sovrin Network, the first self-sovereign digital identification system using blockchain technology.[3] While the Sovrin Network has only been operational for a short period of time, it shows significant promise as an innovative method for establishing, controlling and protecting identity.[4]

The basic idea of self-sovereignty is to use technology to give individuals the power to store their personal information on their own devices, and to provide information when necessary, under conditions that they set for themselves.[5] Such storage of personal information creates an identification mechanism for individuals that is entirely under their control.[6] Use of blockchain technology and a distributed public ledger help ensure the security of this information. This should reduce fraud and improve efficiency, especially for refugees in developing nations, where other forms of identity are often unavailable.[7]

Addressing Skepticism

Skepticism is natural. Why use the internet at all, for people who may be located in developing nations?[8] But access to technology is spreading like wildfire, and in fact is often more plentiful than clean water or food in many developing nations. The internet can provide a lifeline to needed services.

Many may also ask: Why blockchain? It is true that blockchain is still in its infancy, and advanced implementations still have a long way to go. At its core, blockchain is essentially a digital ledger that can be programmed to record transactions, especially those of an economic nature.[9] The first notable use of blockchain technology was in the development of bitcoin, and the technology has since become associated with cryptocurrencies.[10]

But why stop with cryptocurrencies? The Sovrin Network was developed to intelligently use blockchain technology for identification, with an aim toward security and certainty.[11] Blockchain provides this layer of accuracy in identification. Specifically, Sovrin uses an advanced algorithm and a series of nodes throughout the world to ensure the accuracy of information entered into the Sovrin Network ledger.[12]

Sovrin prevents unauthorized entities from obtaining information from users through correlation of the user’s identification from several locations. It does this by specifying a different identifier for each location. The signing key, which is the only identifier that the user needs to know, is not provided to any locations. This makes sense, considering the rash of identity breaches around the world.[13]

The Sovrin Network has been offered as a “free [global] public utility” platform available to developers for building secure, private identity applications.[14] IBM has recently announced that it is partnering with the Sovrin Foundation to aid in its effort to “expand the use of ... ‘self-sovereign identity’” through the Sovrin Network.[15] As one of 25 "Sovrin Stewards,"[16] IBM will host the Sovrin Network on its IBM Cloud platform, providing hardware, additional computing power and security. The partnership is intended to accelerate adoption of Sovrin’s identity standards.

Finicity, a financial data aggregating company, has likewise become a Sovrin Steward, contributing to the development of the network’s infrastructure, along with Datum, a decentralized data storage network and marketplace. The Stewards must comply with the terms of the foundation’s legally binding Sovrin Provisional Trust Framework to ensure their independence from influence by government and private industry.[17]

Operating on a “permissioned blockchain,” the self-sovereign identity is intended to provide a lifetime portable digital identity that does not depend on any central authority, and can never be taken away. To help ensure global interoperability of the digital identities, Sovrin Stewards run the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Indy, an open source distributed ledger technology administered by the Hyperledger Foundation.

Blockchain is becoming an increasingly practical and trusted as a means of establishing digital identity. By creating a public layer for identity, IBO, working with Sovrin and other formidable partners, is designing a project that can give stateless refugees the opportunity to rebuild their identity by accessing other technologies. In every case, there will be private contracts involved in securing the relationship between the identity owners and the companies providing them access to new technologies for education, jobs and other opportunities. Self-sovereign identity is the first technology on the “justice layer of the internet.”


Establishing digital identity is only a start. The next step is to connect individuals to education — which is where the On-Demand Educational Marketplace, or ODEM, comes in. ODEM is an IBO partner for a pilot project in Bangladesh. The ODEM platform was designed to make in-person higher education “more accessible and affordable” worldwide.[18] Ultimately, the system will accommodate online learning as well.

The program uses a blockchain to create a means for students, educators, institutions and other interested parties to share educational information, and to interact through smart contracts. Users gain access to the ODEM platform through ODEM-T tokens.[19] By making a small financial deposit (“staking” tokens) to list courses or reserve seats in a class, educators and students respectively can confirm their commitments to provide or attend particular course offerings.[20] Using the tokens in this way, parties act as their own administrators, thereby lowering fees and accelerating the enrollment process.[21]

As the currency behind the system’s smart contracts, ODEM-T will also be used to pay for students’ tuition, educators’ salaries, institutional costs, instructional materials,[22] and, if an educator chooses to license his or her curriculum for use by other educators, royalties.[23] In addition, third parties who want to contribute to students’ educational costs can use the tokens either to sponsor a particular individual or offer a particular type of scholarship.[24]

But the main virtue of ODEM is not that it makes it easier to enroll in and pay for classes; it is that it assists students in individually tailoring their educational program. The ODEM Program Selection Generator considers students’ preferences concerning the price, location, educator and date of desired classes and provides a list of suitable course options.[25]

Using artificial intelligence, ODEM is able to determine whether a particular student meets the requirements for admission into the class, and to identify groups of stakeholders similarly qualified.[26] This means that if students have the necessary qualifications and the means to travel to locations where classes are offered, they can combine courses from various institutions taught by educators of their choice to create a unique, individualized educational experience.

ODEM also provides a secure, trustworthy source for registering and storing digital records of completed courses (ODEM-C).[27] The records are accessible to the student, and can be made available to third parties such as other educational institutions or employers.[28] Educational records not originally recorded on the blockchain can also be verified through ODEM by a process of gaining “consensus” from “established institutions” that coursework has been completed as claimed.[29]


This article provides only a glimpse into the possibilities that technology provides for establishing identity that can link stateless people to education and income. The next step is to build on this cooperative spirit to create voluntary global networks, and expand access to justice for all — including the stateless “invisibles” who have long been ignored. Leaders and policymakers must join forces to create new rules for the internet that bring everyone into the fold, and give everyone access to justice.

Amy J. Schmitz is a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. Jeffrey M. Aresty is the founder and president of Internetbar.org Institute, and past chair of the American Bar Association Section of International Law’s Information Services, Technology and Data Protection Committee. 

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations, their clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," at https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-rose-by-any-other-name-shall-smell-as-sweet.html.

[2] Prof. Gillian Hadfield, Richard L. and Antoinette Schamoi Kirtland Professor of Law and Professor of Economics at the University of Southern California, at Prof. Hadfield's "Rules for a Flat World" book presentation at World Justice Forum V, July 13, 2017.

[3] Globe Newswire, Sovrin Foundation Releases World’s First Public Distributed Ledger for Self-Sovereign Identity, Sovrin (Sept. 14, 2017), https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/09/14/1121456/0/en/Sovrin-Foundation-Releases-World-s-First-Public-Distributed-Ledger-for-Self-Sovereign-Identity.html.

[4] Globe Newswire, supra note 2.

[5] A Gentle Introduction to Self-Sovereign Identity, Bits on Blocks (May 17, 2017), https://bitsonblocks.net/2017/05/17/a-gentle-introduction-to-self-sovereign-identity/.

[6] The Sovrin Foundation, Sovrin Foundation Launches First Dedicated Self-Sovereign Identity Network, Cision (Sept. 29, 2016), https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/sovrin-foundation-launches-first-dedicated-self-sovereign-identity-network-300336702.html.

[7] Id.

[8] Dr. Garrick Hileman & Michael Rauchs, Global Blockchain Benchmarking Study 20 (2017), Univ. of Cambridge, https://www.jbs.cam.ac.uk/fileadmin/user_upload/research/centres/alternative-finance/downloads/2017-09-27-ccaf-globalbchain.pdf.

[9] What is Blockchain Technology? A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners, Blockgeeks, https://blockgeeks.com/guides/what-is-blockchain-technology/.

[10] Id.

[11] The Sovrin Foundation, supra note 6.

[12] Phil Windley, How Sovrin Works, Technometria (Oct. 3, 2016), http://www.windley.com/archives/2016/10/how_sovrin_works.shtml.

[13] Roger Aitkin, IBM Blockchain Joins Sovrin’s “Decentralized” Digital Identity Network to Stem Fraud, Forbes, April 5, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogeraitken/2018/04/05/ibm-blockchain-joins-sovrins-decentralized-digital-identity-network-to-stem-fraud/#b23a17615ed3.

[14] Id.

[15] William Suberg, IBM Partnership with Sovrin Foundation Aims to Spread “Self-Sovereign Identity,” Cointelegraph, April 6, 2018, https://cointelegraph.com/news/ibm-partnership-with-sovrin-foundation-aims-to-spread-self-sovereign-identity.

[16] Press Release, Finicity, Finicity Joins the Sovrin Foundation as a Founding Steward, April 11, 2018, https://www.finicity.com/finicity-joins-sovrin-foundation-founding-steward/.

[17] Aitken, supra note 16.

[18] Program Staking & Token Architecture V1.2 at 1, ODEM, May, 2018, https://odem.io/docs/whitepaper/ODEM.IO-Technical-Whitepaper.pdf.

[19] Id. at 7.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 15.

[23] Id. at 16.

[24] Id. at 18.

[25] Id. at 11.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. at 8.

[28] Id. at 14.

[29] Id. at 13.